The Tremendous Issue

Last week I reviewed The Napoleon of Notting Hill. There was one criticism I had, when I first finished the novel, that I withdrew after further thought. I’ll share it now, but first a

SPOILER WARNING: This post will focus on the ending of The Napoleon of Notting Hill. If you don’t want it spoiled, stop reading here.

Twenty years after Notting Hill’s victory, it began to tyrannize the other cities, forcing on them its own customs and rules. When they answered with the threat of war, Notting Hill took up the challenge eagerly. Adam Wayne rebuked his people, “Notting Hill is a nation. Why should it condescend to be a mere Empire?”

But they would not listen. So Notting Hill went to war against a hundred allied cities, and Wayne went down with his army to die.

My brother called the battle a Shakespearean slaughter. Chesterton killed – if not everyone, then at least he came close. Notting Hill was destroyed entirely. Watching the characters fall, I was startled and disappointed. I can still feel disappointed reading it again. But I am no longer inclined to criticize, because now I understand the purpose of it.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill is a story about patriotism. In the last, unexpected twist of the book, Notting Hill dies, as all nations eventually must. And Chesterton confronts the strongest objection to loving a country.

After the battle, “upon the field of the bloody end of it all”, a voice spoke: “So ends the Empire of Notting Hill. As it began in blood, so it ended in blood, and all things are always the same.”

And another voice answered out of the darkness: “If all things are always the same, it is because they are always heroic. … If our ancient humanity were a single man, it might perhaps be that he would break down under the burden of so many diverse heroisms, under the load and terror of all the goodness of men. But it has pleased God so to isolate the individual soul that it can only learn of all other souls by hearsay, and to each one goodness and happiness come with the youth and violence of lightning, as momentary and as pure. And the doom of failure that lies on all human systems does not in real fact affect them any more than the worms of the inevitable grave affect a children’s game in a meadow.”

And the first voice offered another challenge: “What might have been done to Notting Hill if the world had been different may be a deep question, but there is a deeper. What could have happened to the world if Notting Hill had never been?”

The answer came: “The same thing that would have happened to the world and all the starry systems if an apple-tree grew six apples instead of seven; something would have been eternally lost. There has never been anything in the world absolutely like Notting Hill. There will never be anything quite like it to the crack of doom.”

To end his story in grim failure was strange for G K. Chesterton. He wrote happy endings; in his novels I have read besides Notting Hill, I can recall only one character death, and that was of a minor villain. But it is only on the “field of the bloody end” that the question becomes so sharp. They ask, and answer again, what is the worth of Notting Hill – not in its triumph or in its weakness, but in its ruin.

And at that inevitable ruin, when a dark voice said it all meant nothing, another voice answered, “Notting Hill has fallen; Notting Hill has died. But that is not the tremendous issue. Notting Hill has lived.”